The painting depicts a dying man having been pierced by the arrow of Mercurius and being used as soil by The Tree of Diana (Arbor Philosophorum), which is growing up from his genital area. The image that inspired the painting is from the manuscript “Miscelanea d’alchimia”. My first exposure to this image was from Carl Jung’s “Psychology and Alchemy”.
Mercurius refers to the various mythological messenger Gods as well as to the closest planet to the Sun (hence considered as a messenger to the Sun). Mercurius also refers to quicksilver or mercury. Mercury was believed to transcend both the liquid and solid states and was, therefore, used in alchemy to create the transformative elixir believed to turn base metals into gold.
Mercury was extracted from the stone cinnabar ore by grinding it along with copper shavings and vinegar. When the powder turned into a black paste, droplets of mercury could be seen on the surface.  This blackening or nigredo was the first step in the alchemical pathway to the philosopher’s stone, where all ingredients had to be cleansed and cooked extensively to a uniform black matter. It is the process of purification of the ego that is unconscious of anything outside itself. It is the first stage in the journey of the hero where we are shaken out of our slumber by chaos, depression, despair, disillusionment. It is the dark night of the soul. Carl Jung referred to this stage as the uncomfortable, growing awareness of our shadow aspect. The shadow is the parts of our personality—shortcomings and wounds—we subconsciously suppress, often because it’s too painful or embarrassing to acknowledge.
Alchemists eventually learned they could heat mercury and nitric acid to produce mercuric oxide. The reaction of mercury when nitric acid is added produces a red vapor that hovers over the surface like a serpent, while the mercuric oxide separates and falls to the bottom of the liquid in the form of bright red coral shaped crystals. When mercury is next added to a solution of silver nitrate a kind of tree arises with branches, known as the Philosopher’s Tree (arbor philosophorum), also known as Diana’s Tree (“Diana” among the alchemists stood for silver because of its lunar color). Diana’s Tree was considered a precursor to the Philosopher’s Stone.
Both the Mercurius as messenger with connections to the physical and the Divine, and Mercurius as the transforming substance were associated with the Animated Force: The Universal Spirit, or Light of Nature (Lumen Naturea). This light is thought to abide dormant within matter and is the source of mystical knowledge and the first-hand experience of the Presence of the Divine. About Mercurius Carl Jung wrote: “When the alchemist speaks of Mercurius, on the face of it he means quicksilver (mercury), but inwardly he means the world-creating spirit concealed or imprisoned in matter.”
The depiction of the tree growing up from the genital area recalls the esoteric teachings of kundalini. Kundalini is the return current of energy (Source Spirit) from dense matter. It rises up the spine when sexual energy is sublimated to spiritual energy. Kundalini is known as the “Path of the Serpent” because it lies coiled and dormant at the base of the spine. Joseph Campbell describes the concept of Kundalini as “the figure of a coiled female serpent—a serpent goddess not of “gross” but “subtle” substance—which is to be thought of as residing in a torpid, slumbering state in a subtle center, the first of the seven [chakras], near the base of the spine: the aim of the yoga then being to rouse this serpent, lift her head, and bring her up a subtle nerve or channel of the spine to the so-called “thousand-petaled lotus” (Sahasrara) at the crown of the head…She, rising from the lowest to the highest lotus center will pass through and wake the five [chakras centers] between, and with each waking, the psychology and personality of the practitioner will be altogether and fundamentally transformed.”
Just as the journey of the hero has twelve stages, the alchemical process also has twelve stages. They represent a series of being and becomings as our experiences and consequential growing awareness transmute our desire to have a concrete identity into a sole desire to return to and merge with Divine Wholeness. The extraction of our ego-self from matter slowly bears fruit in the same way that Diana’s Tree grows out of the ash of what we give up or leave behind during our adventure in matter and time.
Mercurius’s arrow is like the arrow of Eros that calls us to re-unite with the Divine. The dying man, having been struck by the calling, undergoes the arduous process of separating Source Spirit from matter, like the separation of mercury from the blackened matter in the first alchemical process. Our entanglement with matter is one of consciousness or a lack of awareness and experience of the Divine. Mercurius’s arrow acts on the prima materia—the primary elements of the physical world: our body, our mental attitude, our desires, ambitions, need to fit in, need to conform, our sense of and perpetuation of personal identity. The outflow of this energy propels us out into the world. It is the creative impulse to procreate, to accomplish, to be successful, to be respected and appreciated. The alchemical process asks us to turn this energy flow back on itself. In so doing, we synthesize and assimilate any out of balance aspects or shadow elements of ourselves that act as obstacles to awakening the chakra centers. At its fullest expression in the brow and crown chakras, we experience the eternal Presence of the Divine. We are then free of the prison of matter and the limits of time. We are free of the guilt and regret of all that we have done in time, we will have no thoughts of time; no desires in time. The Phoenix will rise from the ash.
- Also known as “Biblioteca Medicea Laurenziana di Firenze, Codex Ashburnham 1166”. The image is found in folio 16 of this manuscript. See figure 131 in “Psychology and Alchemy”.
- Marchini, Marianna, et al., Exploring the ancient chemistry of mercury, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, June 7, 2022,
- Carl Jung, “Psychology and Alchemy”, Part 3, Chapter 3.1
- Campbell, Joseph, “A Joseph Campbell Companion: Reflections on the Art of Living”, (San Anselmo, California: Joseph Campbell Foundation, 2011), p. 117.